When the great poet, W. H. Auden, set out to describe this time of year in his Christmas play, “For the Time Being”, he profoundly captured our post-Christmas mood with these words, “Well, so that is that!” After all the anticipation and alt the celebration, the spirit of these holy days is already starting to burn off like the morning fog, and it’s time to turn back to the hundred mundane details; time to take down the Christmas tree, and time to straighten up the house, time to get back to work, or back to school. We’ve gotten through Christmas once again, perhaps in spite of ourselves. Or in Auden’s words, “having stayed up so late, attempted quite unsuccessfully to love all our relatives, and in general, grossly overestimated our powers”. Auden continues, “Once again as in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility.” So, it’s back to the old world we left behind before Christmas. And yet, the vision will not entirely leave us. We almost wish it would because the vision keeps haunting us. The love, peace, and the joy of that Holy Night continue to catch hold of our imaginations. And somehow we still long to know it, right in the midst of our old routines, right where we are and always have been…in a world that Christmas doesn’t seem to change at all.
And yet, it was precisely into such a world that Christ was born. His love came into a world full of hatred. His peace came into a world ruled by the sword. His joy came into a world all too acquainted with grief. We sentimentalize the manger and pretty it up, but in reality it was a rough, crude, smelly cow stall. And if you think your office is depressing, try a rundown stable on a cold winter night. Yet it was there that Love came down, and peace and joy, and it would continue to come.
John’s Gospel tells us that “the word was made flesh”, not some ethereal spirit, but flesh. Those swaddling clothes had to be changed, if there was anything to change into. With King Herod after Him, the baby had to be carried for his very life down to Egypt , an exhausting journey. And despite the words of one of our carols to the contrary, the little Lord Jesus must surely have cried his head off, as even as a grown man, he wept over Jerusalem , over all the sad compromises, the cruelties, the lack of caring that still characterizes our communities and, yes, even many of our churches.
In was into the real world that He came, and as a real flesh-and-blood human being. And it is into the real world, with all its compromises, with all that depresses both him and us, that he would come during these very post-Christmas days. For we are out of our churches and back into our workday world of buying and selling, meetings, home work, hustle and bustle between home and school and store and basketball games. And it’s there, outside the Church, that the Word becomes Flesh… that the Word takes on our flesh. Our cry is, “Blessed be the God who has Blessed us in Christ.” Not only is Christmas behind us, but today, the first Sunday of the New Year, will soon be gone too. How many of your proud New Year’s resolutions will be broken before the week is over? You have heard the saying: “This is the first day of the rest of your life”, and all the promises of fresh starts and new beginnings that it conjures up. I saw a cartoon recently of a frazzled man taking off his coat at home and saying to his wife, “Well, the first day of the rest of my life was rotten!”
And so, indeed it may be. Auden writes, “To those who have seen the Child, the Time Being is the most trying time of all.” But it’s in this time being, this right here and now, with all it’s frustration, with all it’s discouragement, that the Lord is made flesh and dwells among us.
In a meditation on Christ’s birth, theologian Karl Rahner writes, “God is close to us. His word of mercy and loving kindness occurs where we are now. He is a pilgrim on our paths. He shares our joys and our sufferings. He lives our life and dies our death. He has redeemed us, for he has shared our lot.”
These are God’s promises: the promises of love and peace and joy, that we would hold fast as we return to our workday worlds tomorrow and Tuesday, with Christmas over and done with, and things not all that different from what they were when we began this yearly celebration. And yet may we return with a new sense that the one born at Christmas holds fast to us as we hold fast to his promises.
If we let that happen, then Christmas has happened once again where it happened originally: in a flesh and blood world where we try to make a living, where we try to live our lives, where we try for something more, looking unto Jesus, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, to bring that something to pass. We may have some rotten days in the process. We cannot but have some rotten days, and He will finally redeem those days and let his light shine through them. Howard Thurman wrote these lines:
When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky has gone, When the King and princes are home, When the shepherds are home with their flock, The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost, to heal the broken,
To feed the hungry, to release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations, to bring peace among brothers and sisters,
To make music in the heart.
Perhaps the work of Christmas has just begun here in our Time Being. It’s easy enough to believe or want to believe in Christmas when we gather in churches on Christmas Eve singing carols. It’s something else to believe in Christmas while waiting in line at Ukrops or at the post office, or in our offices and homes, or wherever you happen to find yourself at mid-morning tomorrow.
I remember a visit once to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York . There in the medieval collection, I saw sitting on a small stand, a tiny, ornate bed, like a doll’s bed. It was made of precious wood and silver and gilt. It’s bedcover was a fine silk adorned with pearls. It was titled, “REPOS DE JESUS”. The Bed of Jesus. And it turns out to have been quite a common thing for Christians in that time to have made and kept in their homes, to remind them that Jesus comes. To look at it is to be reminded that he indeed comes into the commonplace, the flesh and blood of our lives, and it is also a reminder that he needs to be given welcome and rest.
So what’s left to us is the question: how do we know whether or not this is true? How do we find out for ourselves whether in this Child there is the power to give us new life?
Frederick Buechner, that uncommonly powerful writer and preacher, gives the best answer I know. He writes: “Adeste Fidelis. Come all ye faithful, and all ye who would like to be faithful if only you could, all ye who walk in darkness and hunger for light. Have faith enough, hope enough, despair enough, foolishness enough, at least to draw near and see for yourselves….The great promise is that if you come to follow this Child, you will find coming to birth within yourselves something stronger, braver, gladder, kinder and holier than you ever knew before or ever could have known without him.”